In 1850, Lieutenant Colonel E. V. Sumner looked at the U.S. troops stationed in Santa Fe, and the temptations offered to soldiers there. He immediately determined to remove them from “that sink of vice and extravagance” by establishing forts only in remote areas.
The plains near La Junta seemed a likely spot since the Santa Fe Trail came from Independence, Missouri. And, thankfully, no large towns could deter the soldiers from their duties. The closest town was Loma Parda (Grey Hill), a small fanning community six miles away. However, soldiers didn’t need a town to bring them some of the delights that had been available in Santa Fe. Hardly had Fort Union been completed in 1851 when a group of prostitutes established their trade-in nearby caves.
A Captain Sykes ended the sinful practice by capturing the women and shaving their heads; the caves now are a part of Cafion de Las Pelones, Baldwomen’s Canyon.
But enterprising merchants in Loma Parda realized that what caves could provide, houses could provide better–or at least in more comfort. So the town became what is called a “blow off’ town, where the soldiers would go to gamble, dance, drink, and carouse with women. An officer named Hollister dubbed the place “a sodom,” allowing Ralph Looney, in Haunted Highways, to make a memorable biblical pun by calling Loma Parda “Sodom on the Mora.”
The Mora River did indeed run freely near Loma Parda, but Loma Lightning, a vicious whisky, ran freely through the town. Hollister complained that the fort’s guardhouse and hospital were filled with men who met with the Lightning. Julian Baca’s dance hall featured live music twenty-four hours a day, and the thriving bordellos gave an ironic meaning to the fort’s name.
Commanding officers tried various ploys to keep soldiers away, usually making the town strictly off-limits. The most ingenious idea considered was to lease the whole town and destroy it. But by 1872, Loma Parda had become a town of over four hundred, with its own post office. In addition, there was at least one establishment, the McMartin brothers’ mercantile, that did legitimate business with the fort itself. Mainly, however, the town’s offerings were meant for the wayward soldiers. In addition to the brothels and bars were pool halls and dance halls that served a variety of libations, even champagne. Wagon service to the fort was available for one dollar per round trip, but that was far too expensive for the average soldier.
Two stories will serve to illustrate the violence and rowdiness of Loma Parda. First, in 1882, a soldier named James Gray was murdered in town. His friends at Fort Union went AWOL dressed as cowboys and attended a dance at Loma Parda. By infiltrating and asking the right questions, they ascertained the murderer, “invited” him outside, and hanged him.
Then there was James Lafer’s visit in 1888. He rode into town, hauled a woman up into the saddle with him by dragging her across his horse, and rode right into a saloon. Then, when his horse would not drink any liquor, he summarily shot it in the head, grabbed the woman, and exited, leaving the horse dead on the barroom floor. Many other anecdotes exist about Loma Parda, the best in Lloney’s book and the pamphlet The Loma Parda Story by E Stanley.
The town became so dangerous the even the local priest fled, locking up but abandoning the church on his way out of town. Newspaper clippings from the day seem to support this narrative of mayhem. According to an article in the Aug. 19, 1880 Daily Gazette, a priest from the Mesilla Valley kidnapped and fled with a young lady who was staying in the nearby convent in an effort to force an elopement. It’s no surprise where he took her.
“At 7 p.m. Friday, the party that went after the Padre and Miss (Margarita) Garcia returned having captured them sleeping in a room near Loma Parda. They were married by Van Patten, J.P., against the protest of the relations. A grand fiasco.”
Other articles from New Mexico newspapers also tell the tales of the violence in the village.
Aug., 13, 1872, The Santa Fe New Mexican: “Within the past three weeks the town of Loma Parda in Mora County has lost four of its citizen by violence. They became too intimately associated with their neighbor’s stock, and were strung up by the sufferers, who had more faith in a stout lariat than in stone walls.”
March 2, 1878, The Mesilla Valley Independent: “The Las Vegas Gazette tells of a chicken fight at Loma Parda that resulted in the killing of four men and the wounding of nine others.”
Nov. 16, 1882, The Las Vegas Gazette: “James Gay, a soldier of the fort, was killed at a dance at Loma, about a week ago, and it was such a cowardly and brutal crime, that his comrades organized a posse, and on Monday swung the murderer from a projecting cliff. The villain had taken refuge in a shanty about three miles from the village but the boys in blue hunted him out, and tied his last cravat.”
Aug. 7, 1896, The Santa Fe New Mexican: “A week ago last Sunday Jesus Garcia of Loma Parda shot his mistress (Isabel Montoya) three times …” (She later died and Garcia was executed by hanging in November of that year.)
Jan. 18, 1897, The Santa Fe New Mexican: “A double killing took place at Loma Parda … on Friday afternoon last. One of the Sheriff (Pat) Garrett’s trusty deputies, John McLeod, was sent at the head of a posse to capture Domingo Baca, who had stolen a saddle … Baca armed himself and opened fire upon them. His first shot penetrated McLeod’s body through the loins, inflicting a fatal wound. The officers returned the fire and Baca fell dead in his tracks. Domingo Baca was a notorious thief and ex-convict …”
When the importance of Fort Union began to fade, so did Loma Parda. The post lasted until 1900, or nine years after the fort was abandoned. A few families kept farming in the area, but it had been abandoned entirely by World War II. The only bridge into town washed away in 1948 and has never been replaced. A footbridge now provides access to the town.
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